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West’s ‘civil wars’ over values
Even in the present, Western societies continue to struggle with contending visions of society, quite often driven by domestic identity politics. When at the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992, Patrick Buchannan spoke of a “culture war” raging in the United States, he wasn’t talking of “alien” values. He was referring to intense divisions in domestic social values.
It was a war between those who saw the United States as a Christian nation that should be governed by Biblical principles and progressives who embrace multiculturalism and secular values. In a broader sense, it was a war between those who want to preserve traditions and those who want to break down their constraints. By 2020, the fourth year of the Trump presidency, the “culture war” had reached a breaking point.
Actually, the war reached a climactic point in June 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. While the decision was hailed by the liberal end of American political ideology, it upended the metaphysical world of the rest. Most of those who were unsettled by the decision accepted it as fait accompli. The highest court in the land had spoken. Yet, there have been pushbacks and consequences.
The most consequential fallout has to be the improbable election of Donald Trump in 2016. Among his major supporters were white evangelical Christians. Exit polls show that about 81percent of them voted for Trump, and the reason is existentialist. Though Trump rates low in Christian pedigree—with his penchant for coarse language, pugnacious rhetoric, and sexual proclivities—evangelicals saw him as the candidate who would most boldly protect their beliefs from an encroaching liberal trend.
That pattern of political choice was set in the 1980s, when Rev. Jerry Falwell formed a group he tellingly called the Moral Majority. It was an able brigade in the “culture war” that Buchanan subsequently and formally proclaimed. Under Falwell’s leadership, the group wielded considerable political influence in much of the 1980s. It contributed to the rehabilitation of the Republican Party after the Watergate scandal and the resulting resignation of President Richard Nixon. And it played a pivotal role in the election of Ronald Reagan as president.
But the fortunes of the Moral Majority took a downward trend by the end of the decade. First, there was the election of the liberal Bill Clinton for two terms beginning in 1988. Then came Barack Obama, after George W. Bush’s tenure. To evangelical Christians, Bush’s middle-of-the-road conservatism did not sufficiently advance Christian values. But he was much preferred to Clinton. In Obama, they saw a regression beyond Clinton.
Though a Christian, some evangelical Christians considered Obama the anti-Christ. To them, his social policies, especially regarding sexual lifestyles, were an attempt to gut Christian values. Like Reagan in the 1980s, Trump appealed to the evangelicals not because he exemplified Christian values, but because he most demonstrated the political pugnacity to stem the liberal tide.
Like the election of Reagan in 1980 then, the election of Trump demonstrated the multifaceted nature and intricacies of the “culture war.” Reagan was a once-divorced Hollywood-actor-turned politician. Jimmy Carter, the man he beat by a landslide, was (is) a never-divorced pious Baptist. Yet evangelical Christians preferred Reagan. The choice may well be explained by the doctrinal shift from Martin Luther’s emphasis on character to the prosperity gospel, or what Francis Fukuyama describes as the “therapeutic message.”7
Evangelical Christians’ choice of Trump in 2016 was similarly motivated, though Trump’s Christian pedigree would seem to be even much less than Reagan’s. “The virtues that one associates with great leadership—basic honesty, reliability, sound judgment, devotion to public interest, and an underlying moral compass—were totally missing,”8 Fukuyama writes. Even then evangelicals saw Trump as the candidate most likely to protect their Christian values.
And nothing stoked their apprehension more than the legalization of same-sex marriage the year before. “As I’ve written before, white evangelicals’ bargain with Trump is better understood as a desperate deal born of anxiety in the face of a changing nation than as a fulfillment of their aspirations,” states Robert P. Jones of the polling agency Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in an essay in The Atlantic magazine (April 20, 2018). “White evangelicals were the last soldiers still manning the barricades opposing same-sex marriage, and their resounding legal and cultural defeat on that issue put an end to any lingering serious talk of being ‘the moral majority’ in the country.”
In in-depth articles for the Washington Post, Julie Zauzmer and Elizabeth Bruenig have conveyed much the same sentiments after interviewing evangelical Christian leaders around the country. “For many, the eight years of the Obama administration felt like a nightmare,” Zauzmer writes for the Post on September 13, 2018. “The indelible image for the Rev. Chris Gillott was the night the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal across the land and Obama flooded the White House in rainbow lights.”
Gillott, the youth pastor at Christian Life Center in Bensalem, PA, was speaking for quite a few. Joey Rogers, a Tampa-based evangelical
Christian activist, similarly sees the election of Trump as a check on the erosion of Christian values. American laws are based on the Ten Commandments, yet government policies have moved away from that foundation, Rogers told Zauzmer. He cited among other things, the ending of prayers in public schools and removal of Bible verses from federal court houses. “1 think that’s why the country is losing the values that we once had,” he told Zauzmer. He pinned the blame on Democrats, whom he said thinks Christians are “wacky.”
In the past few decades then, evangelical Christians have gone from feeling that they are the moral majority to fearing that they are an endangered species. Not only are they losing ground in their quest to have the country governed by Biblical precepts, they now fear being forced to abandon those precepts themselves. They cite laws and lawsuits that compel or seek to compel their businesses to provide services that contravene their beliefs. Among them are the Obama-era law that requires businesses to include birth control in their medical insurance policies and the loss of lawsuits by service providers who would rather not cater for same-sex weddings.
The prevailing sense is that they would continue to lose ground. Rather than the ultimate answer, they see Trump as their best bet to stem the liberal trend for a while. Trump’s approval rating among white evangelicals dipped a little because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests from spring 2020 onward. Still, by July, 82 percent said they planned to vote for him in November 2020.9 That’s a 1 percent increase from the 2016 election.
Now, the evangelicals are in a political limbo. The polls are strongly indicating a likely victory by the liberal Joseph Biden. So, the next opportunity to elect a conservative president would be in 2024. Some evangelicals are already looking ahead to that election. For some, there is an overriding sense of resignation. There is nothing more to do than to hold forth until the prophesied Second Coming.
Robert Jeffress—pastor of the First Baptist Church in Downtown Dallas who described himself as Trump’s foremost evangelical supporter—articulates this ecclesiastical view. “As a Christian, 1 believe that regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., that the general trajectory of evangelicalism is going to be downward until Christ returns,” he told Elizabeth Bruenig (Washington Post, August 14,2019).
I think most Christians I know see the election of Donald Trump as maybe a respite, a pause in that. Perhaps to give Christians the ability and freedom more to share the gospel of Christ with people before the ultimate end occurs and the Lord returns.